Now that the magazine is failing, it has the chance to return to its roots: inquiry and civil debate.
The New Republic is failing because it doesn't tweet enough.
The New Republic is failing because it doesn't spend to report big stories.
The New Republic is failing because it doesn't cover business.
The New Republic is failing because its young owner doesn't venerate his superstar staff.
These are some of the explanations commentators have been giving for the recent upheaval at The New Republic, the century-old opinion magazine. After many staffers walked out recently, publisher Chris Hughes shuttered the magazine, announcing that TNR would start publishing again come February.
Before Mr. Hughes reopens, he might like to consider another explanation for the trouble. The New Republic is failing in its original assignment: inquiry.
"The New Republic is frankly an experiment," announced the magazine's editors in Vol. 1, No. 1, published in 1914. The magazine's goal? "Sound and disinterested thinking." That experiment would be led by progressive liberals, some to the left of President Wilson, at least in some areas. The hallmark of founding editors Walter Lippmann and Herbert Croly was their quirky individuality: It was hard to predict whether, for example, the magazine would support someone such as former president Theodore Roosevelt. (The magazine showered praise upon Colonel Roosevelt's head in one issue, only to chide him in another, The founders imagined that their experiment would include sharp opinion writing. They certainly wanted the magazine to take strong positions on some topics. Indeed, that same first issue featured a wonderfully direct manifesto for book reviewers, "The Duty of Harsh Criticism," penned by a then-unknown 21-year-old from England, Rebecca West.
The magazine would, the founders ordained, engage in public discussion on the public stage and also host divergent arguments in its own pages. What's more, it would allow its authors to publicly change their minds. In other words, The New Republic aimed to be like a series of really good dinner parties: stimulating, theatrical, friendly.
TNR's pioneering writers and editors consciously made the magazine's very existence hostage to their own collective ability to sustain the spirit of inquiry. "If we are unable to achieve that success under the conditions essential to sound and disinterested thinking," the men wrote, "we shall discontinue our experiment." Financial success alone – whether through advocacy of social democracy (then), pornography (the 1960s), or BuzzFeed-like net phenomena (now) – could not justify the magazine's continued publication.
"Sound and disinterested thinking" is a tall order, and at many points over the decades, the magazine did not fill it. The editors did not demonstrate an open mind, for instance, about President Calvin Coolidge, as I discovered while researching Coolidge's biography. The author of TRB, an anonymous column that voiced house opinion, rated Coolidge in July 1926 as "the most completely ignored and wholly uninfluential president of his generation." In subsequent years, the magazine proved shamefully soft on Communism. It overlooked one of the greatest thefts in world history, the expropriation of land in the Chinese Communist revolution; unforgivably, TNR covered this as "Land Reform in China." (Indeed "land reform" remained a favorite magazine euphemism right down into recent years.) On Russia, the magazine could slip up just as badly. In 1952, for example, TNR's book reviewer labeled Whittaker Chambers's indictment of Alger Hiss "his demeaning thesis."
Still, "sound and disinterested thinking" was evident more often than not and, on many important topics, enough to distinguish it from the doctrinaire competitor to its left, The Nation. A case in point is TNR's coverage of the two great wars of the last century. To read through these articles is to see a remarkably insightful group gradually talk itself from isolationism into support for U.S. military action. Though TNR initially opposed entrance into World War I, it began to shift around the time the Germans sank the Lusitania.
In World War II, the pattern repeated at TNR. The name "Hitler" first appeared in a September 1930 article titled "Germany's Challenge to France" (not "Germany's Challenge to America" ). The writer referred to "the followers of Hitler, who call themselves National Socialists and are actually Fascists." By August 1932, the tone of the headlines shifted to one of greater concern: "Whither Germany?" In 1934, the magazine published "Prisoner of the Nazis" a remarkably detailed account of what the Nazis did to detainees at Dachau (wrap their heads in blankets, hold them fast, and trample their testicles.) By 1937, the headline read: "The Second World War Is Here." In 1938, contributor Lewis Mumford penned an article more hawkish than the magazine's editorials. The editors could have spiked the article; instead, they published it under the headline "Call to Arms," politely signaling their disagreement with a footnote alerting readers that "comment on the article can be found in the editorial section."
The same lively spirit of inquiry drew many young readers and writers over the years, including me. Here, I noticed in my senior year of college, were editors who dared to challenge icons, even great ones such as President Roosevelt. The archives show that in the spring of 1982, the magazine actually had the temerity to publish a book review gently critical of President Franklin Roosevelt. The review, titled "The Forgotten FDR," noted that in his second term, Roosevelt's "economic policy had fallen into disarray" and suggested that FDR oversaw domestic economic failure: "If Roosevelt had promised Americans anything, it was jobs, and now the breadlines were lengthening again." Authors James MacGregor Burns and Michael Beschloss concluded their review with an invitation to reassess Roosevelt.
I do not recall seeing this article at the time, but I do recall the magazine's spirit luring me. The summer after graduation, I became an intern, and in later years I would visit the magazine at DuPont Circle from time to time. My fellow interns were Laurence Grafstein, Barton Gellman, Robin Davis, and Ezekiel Emanuel. Some of these names became known later: Grafstein, still a friend, owned the magazine for a time. The great value of the job, even greater than getting published, was the chance to watch the grown-up staff conduct The New Republic experiment – that is, duke it out in mostly friendly fashion.
Owner and editor Martin Peretz did know what he thought about Israel, and he bumped other articles to cover the outbreak of the Lebanon War. Another editor, Hendrik Hertzberg, didn't always agree with Marty, but they had fun with their differences. (Hertzberg still does. "You're Wrong, You're Wrong, You're Definitely Wrong, and I'm Probably Wrong, Too" is the title of a recent memoir Hertzberg published about his editorship.) Michael Kinsley wasn't there that summer, but later he and another writer, Charles Krauthammer, battled – in print – over U.S. policy in Nicaragua. Columnist Mort Kondracke played the centrist grownup in the room. Krauthammer, a trained doctor, criticized the conservative movement: "It is a movement ostensibly dedicated to getting government off our backs and out of social policy while at the same time it promises a government-led crusade of moral regeneration," he wrote in 1982, accurately enough. But Krauthammer was also turning into a conservative himself, a shift that TNR staff at the time seemed to perceive as more of a plus than a minus: The magazine did want that diversity.
It's hard to exaggerate the sense of confidence this open discussion gave younger writers. We felt that all arguments were possible and that we might try anything in print. The feeling was evoked by only one publication I have written for since, The Spectator in London. People called TNR "left-wing," but even as an intern I could see that this description did not capture the place. Not only Senator Bill Bradley but also future prime minister of Israel Ariel Sharon were guests at the daily editorial meetings during my stint there. (The Democratic senator made the case for an idea today perceived as pure Republican, the flat tax.) A couple of summers later, the supposedly anti-capitalist TNR published a cover story naming "America's best newspaper" – referring to the Wall Street Journal. Yet later, when I had taken to arguing in favor of the free-market causes, the magazine invited me back to participate in a print debate on what to do with the budget surplus. (Give the money back to voters, I advised.) In the early 1990s, Martin Peretz solicited a lengthy analysis of Bill and Hillary Clinton's health-care proposal from a critic of the reform, Betsy McCaughey. At the time, McCaughey had never even heard of the magazine. The resulting article was so thorough that it helped doom the Clinton plan. McCaughey won the National Magazine Award for her work. When the White House rebutted McCaughey, The New Republic graciously invited her to publish yet another column – not a letter to the editor – in response.
Still, McCaughey's success was not something TNR editors could quite forgive her. The spirit of policy inquiry was beginning to fade. In the 1990s and since, with a few interruptions, the magazine became mostly a stage for left-leaning young and talented writers to sound off. Krauthammer was at the Washington Post. The magazine from time to time kicked out editors, such as Michael Kelly after he criticized the Clintons and Al Gore.
The change was not absolute, but rather one of emphasis. "The experiment" became less important, and ad hominem attacks on opponents more so. But what was an opponent? Well, a former debate partner. Editors continued to snipe at McCaughey. And after the mid 1990s, McCaughey was no longer invited to the TNR table. In a single week in 2003, not one but three articles attacked Charles Krauthammer, employed elsewhere but still nominally on the TNR masthead. He replied in the letters column, saying that the attacks taken together gave an "an entirely new meaning to the phrase 'contributing editor.'"
In my own case, the magazine also turned hostile. One of my interests had become the very New Deal whose reassessment James MacGregor Burns and Michael Beschloss had invited. The reassessment – book – that resulted even bore a title, "The Forgotten Man," that recalled Burns and Beschloss. No book is owed a review, even from the magazine where the author interned, and it did not especially surprise me when TNR declined to review The Forgotten Man. My own path did not seem inconsistent to me: I'd become what Krauthammer would call a classical liberal. But of course I'd picked up that the younger editors at TNR regarded my work as a betrayal. Two years after The Forgotten Man came out, the magazine attacked it, making the book the principal target in a three-book review that ran than more than 4,000 words. The book, the reviewer said, was a "subtle and slippery" text and "classic right-wing." Krauthammer, McCaughey, and I were not alone: The magazine seemed to specialize in attacking ex-friends. And that was clearly a result of the magazine's own confusion: It's easier to attack others when you can't always come up with your own ideas.
The New Republic's shift can't be seen in isolation. Over the course of the decades, the American Left and the center Left have become more hostile, as has the Right. Magazines, websites, and newspapers now resemble fortresses more than dinner tables. Authors lob their flamers over the parapets, then duck. But the general transformation makes it all the more necessary for publications, print or online, to create space for genuine discussion. The new New Republic can succeed without turning itself into a modern version of Bloomberg's Businessweek. It need not waste money on fancy trips overseas – the original mandate was "thinking," not reporting.
Tweets need ideas, not the other way around. Some of the staff who walked out will go, but some will come back. And Mr. Hughes's debacle is Mr. Hughes's luck. For now he has an opportunity to revive the Experiment.
Amity Shlaes chairs the board of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation and serves as presidential scholar at King's College.
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